Announcing the Shortlist for 2020 ArabLit Story Prize

ArabLit is delighted to announce that this year’s judges selected five stories for the shortlist of the 2020 ArabLit Story Prize, by writers from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt:

This year’s shortlisted stories — selected blindly, as in past years — were chosen by Hilal Chouman, Donia Kamal, and 2019 ArabLit Story Prize winning translator Sawad Hussain.

“With a Beard and Mustache,” by Ahmed Abdulatif, translated by Sherehan Saad

“Phantom of the Sands,” by Maqbul al-Alawi, translated by Andrew Leber

“As Per Job Description,” by Belal Fadl, translated by Mahmoud Younes

“Tunnels,” by Hadiya Hussein, translated by Shakir Mustafa

“The Defeat,” by Zakaria Tamer, translated by Aidan Kaplan

All shortlisted stories will be published in the Winter 2020 issue of ArabLit Quarterly; the winning author and translator will split the $500 prize.

Hadiya Hussain
Shakir Mustafa


Shakir Mustafa is a teaching professor of Arabic at Northeastern University who grew up in Iraq and taught at Mosul University for eleven years. He taught at Indiana University and Boston University from 1999 to 2008. Most recent book is Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology (Syracuse, 2008; AUC 2009; paperback, 2018). Other book publications are in the areas of literary translation, Irish drama, and Jewish American fiction.

Hadiya Hussein, a prominent Iraqi writer currently residing in Canada, has lived much of her life in Iraq. She began her literary career in high school, writing poetry, and that initial interest had an enduring impact on her works. The characters she creates, especially women, perpetually struggle to call their passions their own, and hence fulfillment in her works seems an elusive endeavor. Her Beyond Love was translated by Ikram Masmoudi.

“‘Tunnels,'” wrote judge Donia Kamal, “is a story about loneliness and fear. The writer of this story illustrates the agony of isolation through the narrator’s purging and destruction of every item in her life that might serve as a reminder of the past. She attempts to connect with an Indian stranger, who she calls Sangam, to overcome the loss of a partner who has been kidnapped or abducted by an unnamed state force. There is an underlying tone of blame that goes along with an acknowledgment of collective fear shared by everyone in the city where she resides. An air of mystery hovers over the text, but what trumps even that is the fear and the cacophony of sounds that create an immersive, hostile world.

“The translation of this text added a streak of additional gloom to the story. The English copy is at points even darker than the original. By the time the story ends, the reader can’t help but feel that they need to know more about the events, which is both fascinating and promising.

“Phantom of the Sands”:

Andrew Leber. Photo credit: Alistair Crighton
Maqbul al-Alawi

Maqbul al-Alawi (born 1969) is a Saudi writer and schoolteacher from the Red Sea city of Al-Qunfudha, whose novels and short stories have examined the social transformations as well as major historical events within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Through novels and short story collections such as The Copt, from which this story is taken, he has sought to shed light on the realities of rural Saudi life and the ways that economic development has changed or erased traditions of the past.

Andrew Leber is an occasional literary translator currently based in various locations up and down the East Coast of the United States. He has translated works by authors such as Arthur Gabriel Yak (South Sudan); Diaa Jubaili (Iraq); Dareen Tatour, Anwar Hamed, and Atef Abu Saif (Palestine); Nahla Karam (Egypt); Basma al-Nsour (Jordan); and previous works by Maqbul al-Alawy (Saudi Arabia). His translations have appeared in outlets such as ArabLit Quarterly, The New Statesman, Guernica, The Brooklyn Rail, and several compilations of short stories from Comma Press. The rest of the time, he is a PhD candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government, focusing on the politics of policymaking in Saudi Arabia.

Judge Sawad Hussain said, of “Phantom of the saints, that: “For those who have read his spooky tales, ‘Phantom of the Sands’ has a Roald Dahl-esque atmosphere: seemingly benign, only for the eeriness to mount as the bedcovers are slowly drawn back. The translator has here successfully transferred not only the concept, but the atmosphere of the story, which is both noteworthy and most certainly a tall order.”

“The Defeat”:

Aidan Kaplan
Zakaria Tamer

Aidan Kaplan teaches Arabic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations at the University of Chicago, where he earned his MA in Middle Eastern Studies. He has also studied Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language at Middlebury’s Arabic School. In 2018, he won 2nd prize in the American Association of Teachers of Arabic’s Translation Contest for his translation of “The Defendant” (“Al-Muttaham”) by Zakaria Tamer. When he is not teaching or translating, you can find him performing with UChicago’s Middle East Music Ensemble or working at the local urban farm.

Zakaria Tamer is a Syrian author that has long been recognized as one of the pre-eminent short fiction writers in Arabic. His Breaking Knees (tr. Ibrahim Muhawi) and The Hedgehog (tr. Brian O’Rourke and Denys Johnson-Davies).

Judge Hilal Chouman called this “a mix of Murakami-Kafka-esque storytelling that flows perfectly with no forced elements, even with its strange elements. Both the original Arabic text and the English translation follow each other in simplicity, but keeping the depth of the storytelling. The English translation doesn’t force any overly complex wording but follows the spirit of the original text; it prefers the translation over the translator’s linguistic muscles.”

“With a Beard and Mustache”:

Ahmad Abdulatif is an Egyptian novelist, translator, journalist and researcher, born in Egypt in 1978. He has a BA in Spanish, an MA in Arabic Studies, and is studying for a PhD in Modern Arabic Literature at from the Autonomous University of Madrid. He is the author of six novels: The Keymaker (2010), winner of the 2011 Egyptian State Encouragement Prize; The Clairvoyant (2012); The Book of the Sculptor (2013), winner of the 2015 Sawiris Cultural Award; Elias (2014); The Earthen Fortress (2017), which was longlisted for The International Prize for Arabic Fiction; and Only the Legs Know When to Leave (2019).

Sherehan Saad is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies, Alexandria University, and works as a Translator in the Publishing Department at Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Judge Hilal Chouman writes that this story reminds him of “some of Etgar Keret’s short stories. The Arabic original text follows a one-shot flowing paragraph where sentences barely make use of punctuation. This gives the original text the sense of urgency and the mood of an animated story composed of flashes where one flash leads to another until the last sentences of the story. The translation made a bold choice, where it didn’t copy the same original flow and decided to go with punctuation marks, deciding what was good for the target language. With this choice, the translation succeeded in providing the same urgency and flashy sense of the original. This is a bold translator who knows that translation is not about copying the form, but rather the spirit and even the speed/flow of the sentences, and they succeeds in proving that point here.”

“As Per Job Description”:

Mahmoud Younes studied English literature at university and since then has worked in translation as a full-timer by day and freelancer by night.

Belal Fadl is an Egyptian writer and scenarist whose work spans a number of genres and disciplines. He is the author of more than twenty screenplays, fifteen books, three short story collections, and has written numerous journalistic articles and op-eds, most notably for Al-Dostor, Al-Masry Al-Youm, and Al-Shorouk.

His ”Into the Tunnel” previously appeared on ArabLit in Nariman Youssef’s translation.

Judge Donia Kamal writes that “’As Per Job Description’ chooses a situation, quite embarrassing to put into words, and draws together a witty conversation between the narrator and a secondary character. The many talents of the writer are obvious in this story; starting with the character traits of the narrator, intelligently crafted through the choice of coloring him with certain sentiments. Furthermore, the story wonderfully portrays the relation of a man to a stranger (also a man) when speaking of intimate and taboo topics. The narrator is almost helpless, yet also entertained by the encounter. The words flow smoothly, and the writing does not feel forced. The details are natural and believable, and the language used in the original text is bright and easy to relate to. The translation feels accurate and honest. This is surely a standout story that tells of a naturally capable storyteller.

This year’s winner will be announced October 15. The winning author and translator split the $500 prize; all of the shortlisted stories, pending authors’ and translators’ agreement, will be featured in the Winter 2020 issue of ArabLit Quarterly.